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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Shortchanging Our National Treasures

State and national parks alike are underfunded in this era of tight budgets.

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Fabulous vacations don’t come cheap. Hotels often run at least $100 a night, if not higher. Add in airfare, a rental car, and restaurant meals, and a family vacation becomes a privilege for those with the cash to afford them.

What’s a more affordable option? Heading to a national park, state park, or national forest.

America’s greatest vacation destinations are also our most egalitarian. You still need to get the time off work and transportation, but if you can do that, you can almost certainly afford the price tag of admission — even to the likes of the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon.

I recently took a five-day trip to Yosemite National Park, backpacking through the backcountry in gorgeous pine forests. Total cost from my southern California home: $225 including transportation.

A few days later, I hiked Mt. Whitney, which straddles Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park in California’s Southern Sierras. That trip ran me $21 for my permit plus two tanks of gas to get there and back. And for that, I camped for two nights near a waterfall, watched the sun rise over the mountains, and explored a spectacular wildflower display that changed at each altitude.

More than 23 million people visited our national parks in 2013. And that figure doesn’t include the countless others who stopped by state parks and national forests.

What does it cost to maintain our more-than 400 national parks? The average household contributes about $2.56 in tax dollars. That’s quite a bargain. Especially when you consider the priceless nature of the Everglades, Acadia National Park, and other protected treasures.

Unfortunately, state and national parks alike are suffering due to the underfunding that has struck many priorities in this era of tight budgets. No amount of cutting will make a dent, however. Less than 1 in 1,000 tax dollars support our parks.

Some folks love our parks because they conserve important habitats and species. Others rely on them for their livelihoods. The entire town of Lone Pine near Mt. Whitney is full of hostels, restaurants, and shops selling gear to hikers, climbers, and mountaineers.

No doubt there are similar communities and businesses near every other park that draw thousands or millions of tourists per year: hotels, gear shops, gas stations, restaurants, and so on. Without the parks, the rural areas that border them lack such vibrant economies.

With the approximately $3 billion we spend on them, our national parks generate $27 billion in economic activity and nearly a quarter million private sector jobs.

Thanks to the budget sequester, our national parks now get less of our tax dollars than before — and they were already underfunded.

The budget cuts mean different things to different people. As a hiker and backpacker, my thoughts go to safety first. More rangers means better advice before I set out and more help if things go wrong. 

Budget shortfalls can also result in poor trail maintenance, potentially causing hikers to get lost if the trail isn’t clear.

For national park employees, budget cuts mean lost jobs. For most tourists, it means fewer services, older infrastructure, and lack of capacity to meet demand. And, for all of us, it can mean harm to precious ecosystems and endangered species. Low budgets are probably also why the websites for our parks are utterly lousy, making it harder to plan a trip than it ought to be.

Congress is now on its way to underfunding national parks yet again. Our lawmakers should use some of their copious time off this summer to take their families to a national park and reflect on the mistake they are making.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.